Arkady Rylov. ‘Green Sound’. Oil on canvas, 1904. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
I am not the first to note the striking kinship between Russian and Canadian landscape painting of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But it is a relationship I had not thought of until quite recently, when I came across the work of Arkady Rylov, who was born in 1897 in Vyatka Province, Russia, and died just a few months before the beginning of World War II. From modest middle class beginnings, he studied in St. Petersburg at Baron Stieglitz’s School of Technical Design (housed in a glorious building which you can still visit today), and at the Imperial Academy of the Arts, where his primary instructor and mentor was the illustrious landscape painter Arkhip Kuindzhi. It must have been from Kuindzhi that he learned something truly lasting about the use of shadow and light, and also about the basic composition of a landscape in a way which includes movement: Rylov’s paintings, like Kuindzhi’s, are peaceful, even serene, yet action is not lacking. There is nothing static about his art.
One of the most charming facts about Rylov is that he was a great lover of animals. Squirrels, monkeys and birds shared his studio at the Imperial Academy of the Arts, and he even had an anthill or two. Though Rylov became known in Soviet times as a representative of the school of Socialist Realism, he remained a landscape painter at heart. This, I suppose, is what has drawn me to him like a magnet.
Perhaps it is the vastness of both the Canadian and Russian landscapes, along with their Nordic features, which has caused the landscape painters of both countries to approach their subject in similar ways. Two other Rylov paintings, ‘Thundering River’ and ‘Sunset’, two of his better known compositions, could easily have been painted by a member of the Canadian Algonquin School, or Group of Seven, who were especially active during the period between 1920 and 1933. ‘Sunset’ looks almost as if it had emerged from the easel of Tom Thompson (1877-1917), and indeed Thompson’s ‘The Jack Pine’, today in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, was painted in the same year as Rylov’s work. I don’t know what to make of this: Russia and Canada in 1917 would seem to have been poles apart in just about every way except nature. But perhaps that’s the key, or at least half of it. The other half would be the human element of reaction to nature and depiction of it in an identical time period. Yet I do not note any such similarity in other human endeavors during the same era: who would compare Canadian fiction in the first three decades of the 20th century with what was taking place in Russia in the same field? But that question would rightfully be the subject of a different kind of consideration altogether. I’ll look forward to indulging in it.